CHARLOTTE -- For years he puzzled them, drove them mad. Then they figured him out.
Now, all the work the Carolina Panthers did coming up with an effective plan to stop Michael Vick is out the window, but it doesn't exactly break their hearts.
"It's a glaring difference," Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas said. "He's a one-of-a-kind talent. It's not too many guys who play like him or bring what he brings to the table. It's a big plus not to have to face him."
The Panthers will see the Falcons without their old nemesis for the first time today, since he's suspended indefinitely as he awaits sentencing on federal conspiracy charges related to dogfighting.
And while he used to be the primary thorn in their side (Remember "I'm back," fourth-and-12 and five straight wins), they recently appeared to have solved the problem, having beaten him three of the last four meetings.
"It's completely different," Panthers coach John Fox said. "In the past I likened it to playing the option versus a pro passing attack. It created problems without a doubt because it was so different and very hard to simulate, even just from a typical quarterback in the National Football League. That's basically how it's changed.
"It doesn't mean it's going to be any easier this week, but it's definitely different."
Different because there really were no comparable talents, no player who caused them to create such single-minded strategies.
"There are a variety of different types of quarterbacks, and what they used to be was about as mobile as it got," Fox said. "They utilized that. It complemented their run game as well as their pass game."
But now that he's gone, the Panthers are working against former first-round pick Joey Harrington -- more of a passer but nowhere near the runner.
And no single player is impacted more by Atlanta's switch to a more conventional offense than linebacker Thomas Davis -- who was drafted in part because they thought he could help them contain Vick. In recent matchups, Davis was used as a spy on Vick, shadowing him wherever he went. And he's done quite a job in that role, much of the reason the Panthers were able to neutralize him lately.
Davis grinned when asked about his old job in weeks like this one, saying "Now I just get back to playing football.
"Actually, the game plan was easier for me spying, that's all I had to worry about," he said. "Just basically spy him wherever he went. Now it's an actual game plan, I've got to go out and prepare for Atlanta as we would any other team.
"It's as cut-and-dried as it gets. You see him, trail him, go get him, however it comes. It don't get no simpler for me than that."
Davis said it was like playing man-to-man defense in basketball, and when asked if there were an art to his job, he just laughed.
"No it ain't," he replied. "Just stick with him and get him down."
If anything, the Panthers might be able to play a looser style, since the Falcons have a more conventional quarterback in Harrington. Their old game plans against the Falcons were all about containment, and there seems to be an eagerness among the defensive linemen to get back to rushing the passer, which they've been good at against other teams in the past if not this season.
"Yeah, we'll be able to rush a little better, get after quarterback a little bit, we won't have to be so conscious of rush lanes," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "But you have to anyway, but from watching film he (Harrington) can step up and run. He can still get out of the pocket and do some damage. It's not Michael Vick damage, but no quarterback in the league's going to do that.
"That's what made it a hard team to game plan for. It's hard to match up with him with the ability he had. There's no guy in the league as fast as he is or as dangerous on the run. That's a difference for us putting in a game plan because you don't have to worry about that aspect of the game."
And while the front seven had to create an umbrella to keep him from popping out the big runs, the secondary was faced with the challenge of man coverage on his receivers. The more he ran around, the longer they had to maintain that coverage, and that presented another issue.
"The burden remained on the secondary, particularly the corners," Lucas said. "Because he could buy time for his team, and you had to stay on your man that much longer.
"He made a lot of plays with his feet. You couldn't relax and say, this play is over, it's on the opposite side of the field. His arm is strong enough to make those throws. That's a lot we had to worry for."
But as much as they worried about Vick, there were corollary problems, as well. They knew Vick's safety blanket was tight end Alge Crumpler, so they had to pay particular attention to him. The Pro Bowl tight end never really killed them as he did other teams, but that was in large part because the Panthers concentrated so heavily on him.
"We knew going into the game, that Alge was one of his favorite targets," Davis said. "We felt like we had to come in and do the best job we can on trying to eliminate him from the game plan, which would make it that much easier."